The Prince of Snacks

I’m forty-five miles into a bike ride in the foothills above Boulder, Colorado and I have finally reached hallowed ground: the gas station. It’s a cloudless, hot summer day. In between the pumps I see tourists side-eye me in bewilderment. I lean my bike up against the glass where I can see it from the inside of the store. I head for the doorway. 

As I enter, I can taste salt on my lips. I’m sweaty and hungry, ready to refuel. The only thing running through my head is “Do they have the new limited edition Tangy Tamarind Doritos, or the new Peeps flavored Pepsi?” Slamming a Red Bull with a roller dog and barbeque chips is just routine at this point. Boring, I dare say. I live for novelty, and I’m always on my way to Flavortown. 

Enter: The Prince of Snacks. Part endurance cyclist, but mostly a regional expert on limited edition snacks and candies. A legend in Boulder County, I, The World Famous Prince of Snacks, can be seen riding around handing out seasonal, fun size Kit Kats at local group rides, wooing over crowds with my deep knowledge of the newest Oreos flavors, and declining photo ops. My lawyers say any publicity right now is a liability given that I’m in talks with Frito-Lay and Hostess for collaborations. I don’t expect anything to happen with those companies anyway; they aren’t giving me the kind of money I’m asking for. I plan to stay independent, they can’t afford me. I’m the one and only Prince of Snacks!

Let’s undip from the sarcasm for a second if you didn’t get the memo. It all started about three years ago, when I got MunchPak, a subscription based service that sends you a monthly box of random international snacks. The goodies inside range anywhere from salty licorice from Norway to spicy shrimp flavored corn puffs from Korea. A cacophony of the weird for your taste buds.  After a couple months, the boxes became an addiction. There was a thrill in opening them, reading the packaging to find their origin. I would indulge in esoteric flavors usually reserved for those far flung or brave enough to find them.

Eventually, I ditched the subscription box and became a snack mercenary. I started to raid grocery chains, dollar stores, Walmarts and ethnic markets to get my snack fix, pushing unsuspecting patrons out of the way to get a look at a measly bag of sour gummies. I would walk into the snack and candy sections of grocery stores with a swagger that would make old ladies shit their pants and have soccer moms hiding behind grocery carts. You think you’re an asshole? Try lining up 3 different bags of Cheetos on a shelf and taking photos like they’re Sports Illustrated swimsuit models while some poor family watches in perplexity waiting their turn to snag a bag.

I was running my hand down a deep bag of salty, sugary goodness I couldn’t dig myself out of, and I haven’t stopped since.

When my snack hobby started to blossom, a lot of change was happening. A career in my home state of Florida was dying down, and I planned to move to Colorado to start anew. I never saw myself wanting to live anywhere else. My mother brought me out to Colorado when I was twelve to watch my Taekwondo coach qualify for the Olympics and I couldn’t believe I could see land from far away. My home state was so flat I never imagined anything else, but when I saw the hills and mountains of Colorado something resonated with me that has never let go. I visited Colorado six summers straight before moving.

During this time of change, I was also winding down my time as a triathlete. After a couple Ironmans I slowly succumbed to my love of the bicycle. Yes, I still love swimming and running, but there was a deep warm feeling when I hunkered down into the drops of a bike and let my spirit fly.

I got into triathlon after quitting a long stint of practicing yoga, or better said, yoga told me I should do triathlons. I practiced vigorous forms of yoga for most of my twenties, mastering various asanas (poses), breathing techniques, and settling into forms of meditation so profound that my psyche was inevitably changed. I dove into deep dark wells of consciousness that for most people remain a mystery. I was able to find a clear understanding of life that is the impetus for my love of endurance sports and the natural world. The two disciplines share commonality in the spiritual journey. It was my dharma to ride bikes. 

The turning point was when I saw some cult behavior that shook me to my core, and made me turn my back on yoga, which I regret. There is a hole in life until I return to my practice. It’s complicated. Maybe another tale for another blog post. Long story short, I’m doing exactly what I should be right now, and nothing else. My yoga is between two pedals.

My affinity for limited edition snacks is a novel hobby indeed, but it compliments my love for endurance sports. Let’s get one thing straight: I don’t only eat junk food. Most of the week I eat pretty boring stuff like rice, chicken, veggies. I keep my weekday meals balanced and healthy, but you won’t ever see the minutiae on my social media. I share my adventures diving into the local grocery store, doing reconnaissance to find the newest limited edition snacks that major companies are releasing. So what do I reward myself with after long hours of riding? Whipping open my dedicated kitchen cabinet full of rare and sought after junk foods and trying something that I might have never tasted before.

The snack and confection world has exploded in the last couple years. With the rise of the snack culture on social media, companies are constantly pushing new products to drive the “thrill of the hunt” as I say. Snack influencers will post their findings on Instagram or Youtube, holding up a case of the newest Mountain Dew flavor like it’s the goddamn Stanley Cup.

The regular Snickers Bar or Lays chip just doesn’t cut it anymore. Companies are keen to drive new  products all the time. The junk food world has become a competitive monopoly. Only a handful of companies control the isles in major grocery and retail chains, so to compete with the chips to the left, a constant stream of new and exciting products drive market differentiation. This is where the Prince of Snacks finds himself at ease, scanning food shelves like The Terminator, locking in on the new and the weird in a constant race to keep up.

Needless to say my love for this weird microcosm of a hobby boils down to being an unrepentant food lover. During the weekend I try to eat somewhere I haven’t before. I love pierogies. I love smelly, stinky rancid cheese that burns your tongue. I love a few sloppy tacos from a greasy truck with juice running down the side of the bag. I love a good plate of country fried steak and home fries at a diner with decorations that were hung before I was born, delivered by a waitress who would rather be making ash on the end of a Virginia Slim than look at my giddy face. 

My love of food can be chalked up to my upbringing. My father is first-generation Greek, and grew up in an Italian neighborhood in New Jersey. We didn’t have ham for Christmas; we made calzones and spanakopita. My childhood home reeks of garlic and roasted meat towards evening time. Sitting down and having a meal is the centerpiece of my family. We are all food lovers. We eat good and laugh good, with lots of butter, grease and jokes to go between us.

I also take inspiration from some of my favorite food personalities. Anthony Bourdain and his perennial Kitchen Confidential was a life-changing book for me, with his renegade, punk-rock attitude towards food and travel. Gordon Ramsay is another, with his energy and wit when insulting delusional restaurateurs in “Kitchen Nightmares”. I’m also a fan of Andrew Zimmern, Action Bronson, and Matty Matheson, which I consider contemporary authorities on all things gluttonous.

As a child I watched Emeril Legassi throw bulbs of garlic into a frying pan with a “BAM” that was a household phrase at the time. Long, late nights marathoning the original Iron Chef remains a core teenage memory. Good Eats with Alton Brown taught me how to elevate to cooking excellence with precision gastronomy.

I have always been someone who doesn’t prefer to eat at the nice, trendy places serving boring food on cutting boards. Give me the stains, the neon signs, the twenty year old plates, the history and tradition. I live for a flavorful blue collar immigrant-inspired Americana slowly being drowned out by boring “New American” restaurants probably called “Cattle & Bourbon” or “Cedar ” with servers that look more like lumberjacks than food lovers.

Give me the Vietnamese Pho with tendon and pork joints. I want cow tongue tacos, menudo, and lamb curry that could burn a hole in your stomach. I want the Chinese barbecued duck chopped up by a grandma with a cleaver. If it’s strange and outside the normal American palette, I’m taking an order for the table and one to go.

I’m sure you’re wondering when I’m going to talk about bikes or the outdoors again. Well, as it turns out, my love for adventure extends beyond food. I’ve been riding my bike more than usual to prepare for North South Colorado, a bikepacking race that crosses six-hundred miles of the state border to border. Like food, I’m always exploring on my bike to experience something new and push my body and mind into a transformative space. Again, cycling and all endurance sports are a spiritual journey for me first, before athletics. When the roads get tough, I always go back to my yoga.

As an avid reader of the fantasy genre, my favorite part of those books were the maps at the beginning, and as you read, you learned what it meant to experience those places. 

On the bike, I’m chasing new experiences, new smells, new sights, and new levels of consciousness. New places where I can contemplate empathy and gratefulness, or learn to grow as a person. This roller coaster of a ride I’m on right now feels like I’m flying by the seat of my pants. I’m not sure where I’m going next, but you can be damn sure it will be on a bike and with an order of stir-fried noodles to go. Onward!

Mckay Stephan

You can follow Mckay’s pursuits on the bike and in the bodega at @theprinceofsnacks on Instagram.

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